Monday, July 4

Saying Goodbye

Who would have thought that ten teenagers from around the country could come together so quickly to form one mega plant collecting machine? As individuals we learned that we are strong, but nothing is stronger than what we became while together. A family.

So fifteen days later when it came to saying goodbye it was no surprise that it was an emotional morning. Today each of us brought home memories that will last a life time, a new outlook on plants and most importantly a new perspective on our lives that could only have been discovered through the team.

Now we must wait, for only time will tell what is next for all of us. Some will be doctors and others just scientists in their own chosen field. No matter what we do, I know that as long as we stay true to ourselves and our dreams we can do anything, be anyone and achieve any goal imaginable.

Sunday, July 3

Pack Out What You Pack In....and Sometimes More

Today promises to be a busy final day at the Reserve. After joining our neighbors in Idyllwild for a community pancake breakfast to benefit the Mountain Emergency Preparedness Team, we'll be back at Trailfinders Lodge trying to pack two weeks' worth of dirty clothes, adventures, discoveries, and new friendships into our bags, and trying to leave the Lodge in better shape than we found it. (Don't worry: yesterday we shipped off all the dried plant specimen collections to the Smithsonian.)

It's a challenging and emotional day, so we may not have time for much more than some quick thoughts about what we've learned, which we'll post, with some pictures, as we go along.

Some Lessons Learned:

Plants have artistry.--Evan N.

Dehydration can hit before you realize it.--Evan S.

Plants are amazing. Dodder is "wireless" and flies over other plants like Batman flying over Gotham City rooftops.--Erin

It's better not to judge things before trying them.--Evan S.

Jimson weed is tricky because it smells like peanut butter, but could blind you if you get it in your eyes.--Alex

It's easy to make friends but hard to let them go.--Rachel

Invasive species are threats to an entire ecosystem.--Nick

It's important to use the right end of the coffee cup, especially when talking about how important it is to use the right end of the coffee cup.--Rusty

Appreciation for the natural world grows exponentially with understanding.--Boone

Wherever you go you can, and will, gather friends and even new family.--Evan N.

Saprophytes (like some of the orchids growing on the Reserve) were once thought to live only on decomposing matter (not photosynthesis), but now there's a debate about whether some are parasites living off fungi.--George

It doesn't take long to grow close to good people.--Boone

Nature will never cease to amaze me, from gorgeous plants in the desert to glow worms in the mountains.--Katie

Only plants in flower are considered good collection specimens.--David

People can come together quickly through a mutual hatred for generic-brand Wal-Mart food.--Nick

The desert isn't as barren as it looks.--Anna

Friendships blossom under the influence of shared interests, and I'm always excited to be there when it happens.--Katie

Columbine and the Fendler Meadow-rue are both in the Ranunculaceae family.  Columbine is in the Aquilegia genus and the rue is in the Thalictrum genus (Thalictrum fendleri).  The similar leaf-shape made me think they were related.  Also, Ranunculaceae is a ridiculous-sounding word, like a spell Ron Weasley would cast to make slugs come out of somebody's nose. --Julie.

Despite coming from different backgrounds, we all had a lot in common.--Alex

All green things are not the same. All life is unique.--Erin

Always call back the obstacles on the trail for those who follow. And bring pudding.--George

"Wiper blades" is a spiritual philosophy.--Julie

Peanut M&Ms disappear with astonishing speed.--Anna

Some creeks probably shouldn't be forded.--Julie

If it doesn't have a wick, it probably isn't a candle.--Erin

Dust is no fun to breathe on the trail.--David

In diversity lies strength.--Rusty

Thursday, June 30

Mystery Flower

Every field researcher’s dream is to have that one big find. For team A.D.D.E.R, (Anna, David, Dammy, Evan S. and Rachel) the find came in the form of a delicate flower along a well-kept fire road. Led by our fearless leader Julie, the team collected the unknown specimen.
“What could it be?” This question rested on everyone’s mind and the thought of discovering a mystery flower was enticing. So with our specimens in hand we headed back to the lodge to show Rusty and the rest of the team our find. At first Rusty was stumped, and this excited us even more! Rusty took on the challenge of finding out what the flower was and the next day he had his answer.
Team A.D.D.E.R had collected Collomia grandiflora, part of the Polemoniaceae family, and known to most as Grand Collomia, or the large-flowered mountain trumpet. The flower is a native to California, but has not been seen much in the area.
There are only two recent records of the Collomia grandiflora in the area. The most recent was found in 1983 on the other side of the mountain on the Pacific Crest Trail above Garner Valley. However, the last time Collomia grandiflora was collected on this side of the mountain was over 80 years ago, in 1926.
So we hadn’t found some amazing new flower, but what we found was just as important and still meant a lot to the A.D.D.E.Rs, as well as to the rest of the team. Who would have thought that something as small as a flower could be such a big discovery?

No Trace Left Behind

It was a dark and stormy night, and there was a murderer among us. There was also an angel saving townsfolk from death and a sheriff hot on the heels of the perpetrator. Yes, we were playing the game "Mafia" after we finished our rigorous first day hike during our overnight trip. Our trip started with a ride on the Palm Springs tramway; a lift high up in the air that showed us around the mountains we would be on and brought us to the beginning of our hike. Some of us had to face our fears of wildlife and the hike itself during this section of our trip, but we all did so valiantly and made it all the way to the top and a fire service station, more than eight thousand feet above sea level in the San Jacinto mountains.

A special feature of the San Jacinto mountains is that they are open to all. The beautiful scenery that we were able to be in sees many hikers every day, not just day hikers, but also overnighters like us. Before we started on our two day experience, we were informed on the importance of being in nature without disturbing it. The Leave No Trace movement is a conservation movement dedicated to teaching people how to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors responsibly. Following this ethic, we did several important things to keep the natural environment as pristine as possible so that others could enjoy it without seeing human impact. We stuck to the trails in order to not destroy nature, packed out all the trash we brought in, left everything we found (other than the plant samples we took), and respected the wildlife from safe distances.

Following these rules didn't hinder our experience in the slightest, and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We slept under the stars, played games, saw awesome views, and spotted some deer. And, of course, we collected plants for the research.

They Don't Belong Here...

The vast expanse of the beautiful southern Californian landscape is plagued by a great threat. When alive, it looks like a normal green grass, but it is really a kind of succubus to the water supply of native Californian plants. In the summer it is dead, brown, and dry--potential kindling for a conflagration that could put the San Jacinto’s wildlife and human lives at great risk. It is everywhere: on the peaks of mountains, in the very depths of the valleys, and even creeping around the environmental sanctuary known as the James Reserve. It is Bromus tectorum. Native to Europe, the northern rim of Africa, and southwestern Asia, cheatgrass (yes, its common name is quite appropriate) was introduced to North America by disguising itself as different grains that people actually like and hitchhiking on merchant ships in the late 1800’s. It is now rampant throughout all of North America.

As said before, there are many reasons why this plant just shouldn’t exist. Living cheatgrass steals water out of beautiful and useful species, like the agave and yucca. Dead cheatgrass easily spreads fires that kill native species, much like the way European settlers spread smallpox throughout the Native American peoples. And it never stops spreading. Its seeds attach onto unsuspecting hikers’ boots and clothes and travel to all corners of the world, endangering native species everywhere. Cheatgrass is also a blight upon the eyes. It looks like Europe decided to bring his ugly brown shag carpet over to North America’s place when they were moving in together but he never got rid of it even though she's saying for years that it's just killing the feng shui of the room.

Like most invasive species Bromus tectorum is here to stay. Best thing to do now is to try to limit its spread. So if you're hiking in an area where this brown plague is present, make sure to check your boots and pant legs carefully, even before getting back into your car. Pick out any seeds or grasses, bag them up, and dispose of them where they can't spread. Only you can stop bad shag swag.

It doesn’t belong here.

Wednesday, June 29

Cool Plants: Sarcodes saguinea

Under the cover of the pine forests that sprawl across the San Jacinto mountain range, the quiet brown and green underbrush is rarely broken by color as boisterous as the bright red of Sarcodes saguinea, or snow plant, as it is more commonly called. As we made our way through toward the Reserve lodge on our first day Rusty informed us about this odd organism as we all noticed and exclaimed about the bright red anomaly. A member of the heath family, snow plant is utterly devoid of chlorophyll and does not photosynthesize, as most plants do. Instead, this peculiar plant draws its nourishment from decaying, non-living matter in soil, placing it among a group of organisms referred to as saprophytes.

Snow plants grow throughout the mountains of California at elevations of three to ten thousand feet in pine litter on the forest floor. Sarcodes saguinea flowers between May and July, producing bell shaped, bright red flowers of the same color as the stalk. Snow flowers grow up to about one foot in height with a stalk of up to about one and a half inches in diameter at the base.

We got very lucky in terms of the timing of our expedition since it lined up perfectly with the flowering of snow plants. On the overnight trip last night, when we hiked up into the mountains to spend the night, our odyssey resounded with outbursts and excited gestures toward bright red spikes of saprophytic flowers on the forest floor. Every one of these occurrences was accompanied by a pause to appreciate this exuberant flower.

Return of the Mountaineers

Very happy to report that the team members have returned from their overnight hike through the San Jacinto wilderness. Unfortunately, they walked right into a water-gun assault in normally peaceful Idyllwild. No charges are being pressed (only flowers) because authorities agreed that the team needed as much water on them as possible. Photos and field reports from the hike to follow once the team is unpacked, rested...and showered.

Tuesday, June 28

Off on the Overnight Hike to Skunk Meadow

The team assembles at the top of the Tramway.
Today was pretty extraordinary: a morning's drive down to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway past multiple wind farms, the stunning 2.5 mile tram ride, seemingly straight up the mountain, and all the excitement of the team setting off on the overnight hike through the Mt. San Jacinto State Wilderness. The team will spend the night at a Fire Service administrative camp near Skunk Cabbage Meadow, then proceed down Devil's Slide Trail (gulp!) tomorrow to the expedition vehicles in Humber Park. (Traditional sno-cones in Idyllwild are sure to follow.) Collecting plants, as always, will be one of the chief activities along the way, but this time the collecting will be followed by a night sleeping under the stars.

Click here to watch video (with some commentary from the peanut gallery...) of the team heading out onto the trail from the park at the top of the Tramway:

Monday, June 27

Getting Ready for the Big Overnight Hike

Lots of activity, preparation, and anticipation at the Reserve today as the team pushed through to get a ton of plant data catalogued properly, checked on pressings that have been drying, and started to pull their gear together for the overnight hike that starts tomorrow morning. And somehow they also managed to find time to play host to two educators from the Los Angeles area who visited today, and blew them away with their lesson plan ideas for ways to introduce the work they're doing here to various different kinds of students.

Check out the video to see some of the preparation work being done:

Cool Plants: California Flannelbush

Latin Name: Fremontodendron californicum
Common Name: California Flannelbush

The California Flannelbush grows at high elevations, in the southern parts of California and the western regions of southern Arizona. This evergreen thrives in arid conditions and in soils that are lacking in nutrients.

The plant is named after its collector, 19th century explorer John Charles Fremont. Fremont served as the third Military Governor of California, a California Senator, the Territorial Governor of Arizona, and was the first Presidential Candidate for the anti-slavery Republican Party.

Fremont was also an avid explorer and embarked upon vast excursions across our nation's then unexplored frontier regions. During his travels Fremont compiled a rather extensive collection of the plant life in the Southwestern Territories and States.

We collected the specimen pictured above along the south face of a rocky slope heading up towards Cedar Springs.

Sunday, June 26

In A World Of Orange...

If there is anything I’ve learned this week, it’s that plants are everywhere. There are plants on rocks. There on plants on trees, and there are even plants growing on top of other plants. One prevalent example of a plant with that parasitic ability is dodder, a native to California, known to the botanical community as Cuscuta californica. Surprisingly related to the morning glory family, dodder is capable of engulfing grasses and blooms of mountain trails with orange, spiderlike projections that span from plant to plant. Feeding off the nutrients of host plants through their straw shaped vines, dodder can forgo the process of photosynthesis and independently thrive in huge masses. This parasitic ability is achieved by projecting haustorium (invading tips of fungi) into the host’s vascular system, which frees dodder from dependence upon roots. After dodder is “wireless” (root-free), it has the ability to strategically direct its growth. It is hypothesized that plants surrounding dodder release chemical substances that help it sense which potential hosts can best sustain it. The dodder then expands its growth towards the most efficient host. Cuscuta californica is definitely an ingenious, little noticed plant that is expanding throughout southern California in all of its "orangey" glory.

Say Hi to Erin and Evan N.

For our final interview--of the students, anyway--we bring you Erin and Evan N., upstairs in the lodge in front of the barrier to something called "The Man Cave," where George has reportedly been seen hiding....

Watch them here:

Say Hi to Boone, Evan S., and Nick

These three take the group interview video to some new, slightly weird, places....


Say Hi to David and Dammy

Next up, the Double D interview: David and Dammy. Watch here:

Say Hi to Rachel

In this installment, you get to meet Rachel, another of our native Californians, who has an interesting family tie to botanical research in this area.... Watch here:

Say Hi to Alex

Another "get to know us" video, this one featuring Alex, who volunteers to do waaaay too much of the work around the Trailfinder Lodge--and we love her for it! Watch here:

A Sticky Situation Picks Up

Video of Julie collecting a sample of pencil cactus, assisted by David as "bagger" and Evan S. as Recorder; watch 'til the end and see us practice "leave no trace" ethics--actually, "clean up others' traces" ethics.  


Roughing it--with WiFi

The ten of us, hailing from everywhere from Texas to New Jersey to northern California, arrived at the James Reserve with hardly any expectations. "Rustic research cabin" can mean so many things. Would there be hot water? Beds? Geez, would there be cell service? (The answer, by the way, and unfortunately for me, is: not for AT&T users.)
We ended up with perfectly normal (though plastic--and loud) sheets and beds, spread throughout the second floor. It didn't take long for our dozens of bags to take over every inch of space.

The first floor consists of a kitchen (which has strangely become a popular gathering space), bathrooms, an office, and the main room--host to frantic plant-pressing sessions and nighttime card games alike.The James Reserve, home base for our expedition, is a 30-acre outpost of UC Riverside that is home to dozens of separate projects analyzing everything from moss to birds to ladybugs. But for us, it's home--at least for two weeks! Thankfully, there's WiFi to help us "rough it" a little less--and to post to this blog!

Extra: check out this video to see our James Reserve host, Dr. Becca Fenwick, introduce us to one of California's oldest Ponderosa pines, our new neighbor.

Also: watch Becca demonstrate a moss found on the Reserve with some amazing properties:

What the Heck are We Doing Out Here Anyway?

The Pressers: These hard-working souls are David, Alex, Anna, and Nick. They are the pack mules of the group. The Pressers have to pack paper, blotter paper, and the wooden slats with straps with them on a field day. Once someone collects an actual plant, usually the process photographer, the Pressers go to work. The first thing to do is separate the plants so the florescence, or the plant's flowers, are clearly visible. One Presser places them on a piece of paper with a number assigned by the Recorder (see below) on it, while the other Presser puts a blotter, which absorbs water, on the paper. Then comes a piece of cardboard for structure, and the whole process starts over again with the next collection of a different species. We usually aim to fill at least three pages with pressings of an individual species.

The Process Photographer: Dammy and Erin are these amazing photographers. They are in charge of taking photographs of the whole process of collecting, recording, and pressing plants. These photos include pictures of the collected plant, its surrounding habitat, the people collecting it, and whatever else suits the photographer's fancy. At the end of the day, these process photographs create a wonderful visual record of all of the daily activities.

The Close-Up Photographer: These artistic individuals are Rachel and Evan N. In charge of taking pictures of the collected plant, they create detailed, close-range images of the plant as well as ones taken mid-range and farther away. Needing a more complex camera than the process photos, this job requires a good eye for detail and an appreciation for the littler features of the plants and their surroundings. These photographs will later be downloaded into an online spreadsheet. Rachel and Evan's pictures capture the habitat beautifully and also provide professional-looking photographs of plant themselves.

The Recorder: Evan S. and Boone are the detail scribes of the team. In this job, one cannot mess up without setting back the entire group. The Recorder is in charge of creating a journal that assigns numbers to each collection, the common and  scientific names of the plants (to the best of our abilities), and an accurate description of the plant, so that if our names are off the botanists at the Smithsonian can still identify them and match the journal to the photos. The Recorder also has to take a "mark," a GPS coordinate of where we collected the plant. They then have to write down the number range of the images the Close-up Photographer took of that particular plant. After the end of a usually tiring day, the Recorder has to rally and catalog all of the newly acquired data into a spreadsheet on one of the computers at the Reserve.

Watch us in action:
Video clip of Rachel and Evan working as Close-Up Photographer and Recorder in the Field, with David helping as a Collector:

Clip of Alex and Dammy doing some pressing in the field:

Saturday, June 25

Lieutenant George on K.P.

While Our Fearless Leader sleeps...

Our Fearless Leader

I believe the picture speaks for itself.

No Warning?

As ten high school students taking on the challenge of staying in the wilderness for two weeks we all knew the risks before we set off on the most epic adventure of our short lives. Threat number one? The southern pacific rattlesnakes that call these mountains home. However, we all knew about the telltale rattle of the snake and felt prepared, especially under the watchful eyes of our Earthwatch leaders, to make our journey despite the risk.

As we began our first real day as a team, our generous hostess Becca showed us the ropes around the Reserve, explaining all the do’s and don’ts of the area. She then brought us to a trashcan that held a deadly secret hidden inside. A few days prior she had caught a rattlesnake under the bird feeder at the Reserve and stored it here to show us what to look for when in the field.

A dramatic reenactment of the silent snake encounter by Anna, Rachel, and Boone.
Our minds were about to be blown, for what we did not know is that many of the snakes in the area have adapted and hardly ever rattle when threatened. We were all astonished to find out this new information. Then, to prove her point, Becca began to jiggle the can, and as she assured us the snake was reluctant to rattle.     On our third day, a Cal Fire employee stopped to warn us of a rattlesnake just up the road and also confirmed Becca’s warning.

So why have these snakes become a soundless threat?        One theory is that rattlesnakes have become more used to people being a constant presence in their habitat. The second and more likely theory is that as fearful people have killed too many of the snakes that do rattle and scare them, those that don’t rattle have managed to survive in increasing numbers. No matter which theory is correct, one thing is sure: our “snake sense” has been turned on high for the rest of the trip and into the future.

Mountain-Top Celebrities

It happened unexpectedly. My team, The Adders, had just finished our work in the field and decided to take a trip to the Black Mountain fire lookout tower so we could see an amazing view of southern California. When we got to the site, Rusty began to talk to the staff and volunteers who worked there. As he talked to them, he realized that he remembered one of the women from one of his earlier visits there, but made a joke about how he must have been recognizing her from the movies or television. Ironically, it turned out that the volunteer's name was Michele Marsh, an actress who had several roles in movies and television series over a period of decades. She took the time to tell us about her adventures as an actress, and we told her about what we were doing with plants on our expedition. What was really surprising was that she had been in many movies and TV shows that the team had grown up with, including Fiddler on the Roof, Top Gun, Star Trek, and Little House on the Prairie. As we walked away, knowing that we had made her day and she had made ours, I saw that Earthwatch isn't just about learning about plants and collecting them: it's also about meeting amazing people in the least predictable places.

The Daily Grind

There will be future blog posts telling about more intricate details of the SCAP expedition, but I believe it is necessary to describe our everyday and ordinary experience to our readers. This is a day in the field:

We wake up at 6 am, and eventually drag ourselves out of bed. Everyone’s eyes say quite clearly that we want more sleep, but there is work to be done. Some of us shower, and all of us make our lunches, eat our breakfasts, and pack our bags. The group splits in two and gets into one of two cars, each car going to a different location. At 7, we head to the trail, and our adventure begins.

By the time we get to where we’re going, most everyone is awake. We get out, get our packs on, and begin walking. The trails we traverse often go up mountains or down to streams and rivers to where the plant life is most diverse. By around 9, the sun is scorching and the travel is hard. Along the way, we collect a variety of plants, from cacti to exotic flowers (in photo, Alex and David).

At some point in the day, a break is taken to eat lunch. By the time we reach the car it is early afternoon and everyone is hot, tired, and dusty. Once we arrive back at home base, known as Trailfinders Lodge, we unpack the cars and our bags. Depending on what our individual jobs are for the day, we will have to press the rest of the collected plants, enter data or pictures into the limited supply of laptops, or simply do odd jobs that pop up around the lodge.

The rest of the afternoon is up in the air. A variety of activities, including frisbee, blogging, and card games take up most of this time. Eventually we eat dinner, which is most likely cooked by Alex, who seems to be volunteering her time and energy whenever she can. The day ends and we go to bed when our exuberance wears out and our eyes can no longer stay open (or when we’re told to).

Well, it's Saturday already and we've only begun to post blog entries. I know everyone wants to see and hear what's happening but we've had some time drains (including a vehicle problem, an invasion of CENS geeks, and obligatory visits to the sno-cone store) as well as a couple of technical problems involving the videos. But we've got everything resolved (except visits to sno-cone-ville will continue) and you can expect a flurry of content real soon. In the meantime, here's a couple of shots that are typical of the fun and camraderie that is SCAP. First is Team Blue Sky (l-r, Anna, Nick, Boone, Erin, and Evan N.) with staff member Katie in the blue shirt in middle. They look pretty fresh for just having hiked all of our gear (not shown) to the intersection of Cedar Springs Trail and the Pacific Crest Train at 6,800 feel elevation. The second picture is Team Adder (front l-r, Rachel, Evan S., Alex and Dave, back, Dammy) with the seemingly everpresent lieutenant Katie in purple in front. Here they are on the side of Black Mountain Truck Road, elevation 7,780 feet. They don't look quite as fresh, do they?

Friday, June 24

Say Hi to Anna

Hello Followers! In order to help you get to know us all a little better, we'll be posting quick "interviews" with each of us along with our other descriptions of the work that we're doing here. First up is Anna! Click to watch:

Wednesday, June 22


They flew in from all over the country ... big cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, and Seattle. But they started in much smaller communities like Clearlake (CA), Alexandria (KY), Carlisle (PA), Humble (TX), and Corvallis (OR). Destination: Ontario, California .... or more precisely, the James Reserve in the San Jacinto Mountains about 90 minutes to the east and 5,000 feet higher. I look forward to this every year, but I'm not sure why. On the surface, the facts suggest that I lost a bet. Collect ten precocious high school students at the airport, transport them to a wilderness research center and engage them in exhausting activities (physically and academically) for a full 14 days. But despite the inevitable ups and downs, the full experience is greatly rewarding. Over the next two weeks, you'll have a chance to meet the students and staff, revel in their accomplishments, applaud their initiative, and watch as they grow and learn. You'll also have a chance to post comments and questions to the group, and I will ensure that a response will follow. Enjoy.

Video extra: During our arrival-day visit to the Riverside Metropolitan Museum's Natural History Collections, Julie shows a sample of a plant collection and explains what will happen to the ones we collect in the field. Watch: